Review by Sean Boelman
When Wim Wender’s Perfect Days was announced as the Japanese submission for the Best International Film Oscar, a number of master Japanese filmmakers were left in the dust, including Hayao Miyazaki, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, and Hirokazu Kore-eda. Kore-eda’s latest, Monster, definitely feels different from his usual work for a multitude of reasons, but it’s still a strong and intriguing movie with nuanced direction.
Monster follows a school-age child who becomes embroiled in a complex dilemma when he starts behaving strangely, causing his mother to investigate his teacher whom she believes to be the cause of his behavior. Interestingly, Monster is Kore-eda’s first movie not written by himself, and Yûji Sakamoto’s script is the source of most of the film’s weaknesses.
The movie has a Rashomon structure, where we see the events of the film unfold from three different perspectives, adding more to the story with each permutation. Although this is clearly done with the intent of showing that no one person knows the full truth, it does undermine the pacing and suspense at a few points.
Sakamoto’s character development is very unsatisfying for much of the first two-thirds, taking until the final third to tie everything together. As such, viewers might spend much of the runtime feeling disillusioned with the characters’ actions until the pieces fall into place. It’s certainly a nuanced and layered approach, but effective? Not always.
The performances in the movie are strong all-around, but working with the cast has always been Kore-eda’s strongest suit. Eita Nagayama is probably the biggest stand-out as the teacher accused of abuse, showing a vast range of emotions that add a lot of nuance to a somewhat unsubtle character. Sakura Andō is less nuanced in her role, but still affecting.
In exploring the film’s themes of bullying, Kore-eda has made a movie that feels much more heightened than the rest of his body of work. Although Monster in many ways still feels rooted in a core of human connection, it also feels a tad more histrionic when it hits its higher moments, whereas Kore-eda’s films generally feel more subdued.
Of course, Kore-eda’s grasp of the camera is as strong as ever, with the cinematography by Ryûto Kondô being exquisite. The late Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is also sweeping and fantastic. However, it is worth noting that the very regal nature of the execution does create a bit of a disconnect with the tone of the script.
Monster is an interesting movie, and thanks to the deft directorial hand of master Hirokazu Kore-eda, it’s thoroughly compelling. However, the script’s lofty ambitions often threaten to undermine it, with an approach that aims for ambiguity but settles into occasional convolution.
Monster screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.